Long Distance Loves: Processing a Pandemic as a Migrant
DUBLIN, IRELAND 27/04/2020
Navigating the daily updates and head-spinning news about Covid-19 is hard. But following the viral menace wreck its way across the globe for the past six weeks has made me more aware of the transformational impact that the news can have on us.
Beyond the existential threat of an international pandemic, reading and watching the news has changed my own relationship to “home”. Hence, this piece is not about the coronavirus per se but about the news coverage and consumption regarding the coronavirus. It is about the migrants for whom the news has become a strange and dark harbinger in this time of lockdown.
Like many people, I go through the news every morning. First, I turn to RTE – the Irish news. I have lived in Ireland for the past six years, working as a researcher. It is in this country that I met and married my husband. We live with our dog in a quiet neighbourhood in north Dublin. I love the place. Our neighbours have been welcoming and kind. I can see myself living here for many more years.
Second, I go to NDTV (the Indian national English news channel) before I look for Star Ananda (the local Bengali news channel from the state where I come from). My parents live in a small industrial town in India. They live with my brother and sister-in-law. Luckily, they have the means to organise home deliveries for supplies. I’m especially grateful for this because it is impossible to keep my father at home. He is one of those people with the compulsive need to step out of the house five times a day.
Finally, I put in a Google search for ‘Spain Corona’. I am not fluent enough in Spanish to read the local news, you see. But my husband is from Spain. No, Catalonia. He is from Catalonia. His parents and his only living grandparent are currently living in lockdown in a beautiful coastal town near Barcelona. His “Yaya” makes stunning intricate crochets for us when she isn’t reading sappy romance novels. But now we are worried for her. We are also worried for his sister, who is a pharmacist working every day while her children stay at home with her husband.
TRACK AND TRACE
Watching the news in this way, it is immediately apparent that the three governments have vast differences in terms of resources at their disposal, governance approaches, and decision making skills.
The timeline of the virus is at different stages in all three countries. So, for me, it has been like living through three different stages of the outbreak at the same time.
Ireland announced the closure of schools and colleges on the 12 March. Spain declared a national lockdown two days later.
I was goading my parents in India – to whom this all seemed far away – to get some extra groceries. The next day, on the 24th of March, their own lockdown was declared.
While Ireland appears to slowly adapt the path Spain had taken, I see India still struggling to do enough tests. We might never know the full scale of the outbreak in India, because there simply aren’t enough tests done.
Although Ireland’s lockdown was implemented in a gradual manner, the Indian government gave one billion people only four hours to prepare. And for those of you who do not know, India’s coronavirus prevention strategy has turned into a humanitarian tragedy. Due to the lockdown, migrant workers who have lost their jobs have attempted to go back home on foot, in a form of mass migration. They have been stuck for weeks now, with zero social security. There are stranded migrant workers across India surviving on one meal a day. Many are simply starving.
As I write this, Spain has declared a universal income for all. It is something that I hope I will see in India.
Indeed, this pandemic has made me more aware about income disparities, infrastructural inequalities, frightening supply shortages, and the reality of hunger.
Over 80% of the India’s migrant working population lives in fear of running out of food before the end of the lockdown. Likewise, the controversy in Ireland about inviting Romanian workers to pick strawberries as well as the declaration of U.S. President Trump to suspend immigration has brought forth the reality that we are not all in this together. Not in the same way. Some are dying so others may survive. In Ireland, asylum seekers in Direct Provision continue to live in overcrowded conditions, raising concerns that mismanagement at national level is putting their lives at risk. And as the global domestic violence epidemic is exacerbated by the quarantine, it is clear that home can be more dangerous than the virus itself.
The novelty of working from home is wearing off even for those not facing the challenges of parenting or caring for elderly family members. Even while reshaping educational resources globally in an unprecedented way, there are concerns about new structures of inequalities reinforced by online teaching. In Ireland, lack of access to technology, time and skills among parents can mean that distance learning in primary schools are not effective equally across all classes.
According to a study of almost 3,000 primary school leaders conducted by Dr Jolanta Burke and Dr Majella Dempsey of Maynooth University (MU), about one in five primary schools had no arrangements in place to keep in contact with pupils after the closure of their schools was ordered from Thursday, March 12th.
In the universities, we find international migrant students scrambling for visa extensions, frantically searching for emergency accommodation when university residences like that in Trinity College were closed down. Only a handful of universities have acknowledged the effect of the pandemic and extended postgraduate scholarship periods. For others, it is a challenge to continue with their pre-Covid timelines.
My own research is facing challenges as well – visa appointment postponed, teaching visit to Jerusalem cancelled, fieldwork in two countries scheduled from September unsure. To stay motivated and continue to work on a topic like sexual violence while living in isolation makes unforeseen demands on one’s mental health.
My journey, mercifully, has not been one of despair, though. My own migration has brought me opportunities and new friends, relationships, and family.
I would give anything to see my two families again. But I am aware that a transcontinental life is usually a sign of great privilege. It means you have travelled and had the financial means to do so.
In the midst of figuring out the differences between terms like ‘coccooning’, ‘social distancing’, and ‘quarantine’, it gives me hope to see that people have become more humane.
As governments continue to fail migrant workers in India and other countries, people have come forward to arrange for food, medicines, emergency supplies.
It is not enough, but it gives me hope, even in the middle of this apocalyptic capitalist nightmare. Seeing friends who have not spoken in months, estranged families, and distant colleagues checking in on each other, offering help and camaraderie, makes this outlandish time just a bit more bearable.
From keeping up with the news, I have moved on to clutching at the bits of good news.
To survive the pandemic in three countries, a migrant needs to associate and dissociate with all three. It is a daily dance of desolation.